The Irony of Christmas Radio

Breaking news.

Arbitron shows WBEB (B-101), Philadelphia doubling its December ratings from an 8.2 to a whopping 15.8. Praise be to God. No. Praise be to the People Meter that tracks seasonal format changes like lightning.

Clear Channel's KODA in Houston jumped from a 5.2 to an 8.9 thanks to Christmas music and the PPM.

Even in New York, Clear Channel's Lite WLTW-FM jumped from 6.1 to 8.2 with huge increases in cume and that's without the Arbitron People Meter.

Maybe the best people meter is actually -- people.

It's pure irony.

Radio audiences love Christmas in spite of all the social-correctness that we hear -- you know, about "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", religious holiday vs. retail event, etc. But I am not at all convinced that these huge ratings indicate that the Christmas music radio audience is religious at all. I'm not even sure it has much to do with the actual December 25th holiday.

My own personal program director's people meter located right here in my gut tells me that audiences like it when radio stations create a feeling of something special.

Some of our brightest programmers have been doing Christmas music for a long time. My first job in radio was for Jerry Lee (well before he got the James Bond Aston Martin and made all his millions). We worked out of a pretty crummy office above the Germantown Bank in Philadelphia. Then, we went all-Christmas a day or so before and all during Christmas day. Marlin Taylor and Phil Stout made it happen. The announcers got the day off and we used voice tracks. No. No. Not voice tracks. Prerecorded tape that sounded like we weren't there (and the audience apparently could care less). We didn't try to fool them.

Radio programming has been on a self-destruct for a lot of reasons that I have written about and you don't need to hear it again. But, the true meaning of Christmas in a radio and ratings sense is that it forces sterile radio companies into creating just a little bit of magic.

I emphasize -- a little bit. Like promos, jingles, liners -- the usual radio excuses for programming.

How could I argue with ratings that good by radio stations programming Christmas music?

For starters, most of them don't even try very hard. They've got their playlists and the formatics I previously mentioned and they're off.

A starved radio listening public eats it up.

Imagine what radio could really do if it tried harder.

In fact, imagine what terrestrial radio could do if it tried harder the other 46 weeks a year. Betcha the ratings would soar among existing radio listeners. You already know what I'm going to say about the next generation -- they're lost to terrestrial radio.

If audiences in this politically correct, secular world we live in love Christmas radio more than anything else we seem to be able to do, maybe it's time to stop looking at this phenomenon as a holiday uptick and look at it as a wakeup call.

What I'd like to do is take a group's top program directors for one day -- that's it -- and use the brainstorming technique I have taught my students to use at USC and lookout. Christmas couldn't come fast enough next year.

Then, onto the rest of the year.

You don't get the best out of your best program directors by being a business.

I know. I know. Radio is a business.

But it's not.

Sports is a business and everything else nowadays seems to be too. But in radio our leaders are under the false illusion that programming is about making money it's not.

It's an art form that you sell commercials in after it attracts a large audience.

And that art?

Being a one person "people meter" listening to different voices, trying different things, pushing the envelope.

Get me Buzz Bennett (the wild and quirky program director in the 60's and 70's). I'd like to see Buzzie and Farid Suleman at lunch -- say, at 21. Would Farid make it to dessert? Would Buzzie stay for the entire meal?

Programmers should be people you hire to create audience. Give them a time frame and a clear expectation of results.

Give them autonomy.

Give them resources.

Give them a break and leave them alone. Read the excellent Radio & Records interview done by Erica Farber with Bill Drake on John Rook's website and ask yourself -- could the icon Drake himself who made all that money for RKO back in the day do it today for meddling cheapskates known as consolidators.

I think we have our answer.

There's still hope.

The first radio group to believe that programming is not a business at all gets it. I haven't seen such a radio group in at least 12 years worth of Christmases.

Boffo Christmas ratings?

Your audience is trying to tell you something and it has very little to do with a religious holiday.

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